When I set out to make a recording, one of the first things I consider is how the sonic ingredients will fit together, especially within the context of how I’ll use the resources available to me during the session(s).
Dazzling array of options
Electric guitar possibilities are endless. Solid body or hollow body? Single coil, humbucking, piezo electric pickups, or some combination thereof? Tube, solid state or hybrid amplifier? If no amplifier is to be used, then what type of line in—a DI, a guitar processor, a mic preamp fitted with a Hi-Z instrument-level input?
Open back or closed back speaker cabinet? Number, size, manufacturer of speakers? Clean or dirty, or somewhere between? Inline, outboard or no effects? DI, mic(s) or both? Modeling or no modeling? If miking speakers, then what type of microphone(s)—dynamic, ribbon, condenser? What type of preamp? Equalizer? Compressor?
I don’t have a set approach to answering these questions, other than a constant search for ways to integrate the timbres of the instruments in a track so that they work together to form a whole while maintaining an identity of their own. Most important is that the sound should serve the emotive ambition of the track, whatever that might be.
My personal preference for a relatively generic approach to recording electric guitars is to carefully choose an instrument, amplifier(s), speaker(s), microphone(s), preamp(s), eq(s) and compressor(s). Although I own a couple of Tech 21 SansAmps, an Avalon DI, a host of preamps with guitar level inputs and Line 6’s Amp Farm TDM plug-in for Pro Tools, I still believe that I’m best capable of getting sounds that remain the most satisfying to me by doing it the old-fashioned way.
This is not to say that I don’t occasionally use all of these above-mentioned tools to help shape a sound. For instance, if I knew that a Vox AC-30 was the perfect amp for the sound I was trying to capture, but I couldn’t get my hands on one, I’d be likely to make use of the Amp Farm to help bring that element into the picture.
Plan on re-amping
Or if I was in a location where I couldn’t fire up an amplifier without disturbing the peace, I would definitely consider cutting the guitar in some sort of amplifierless way. If a situation forces me to cut an electric guitar track direct, in the back of my mind I’m usually counting on being able to re-amp later (send and re-record the previously tracked direct signal through an amplifier/speaker/microphone, etc.).
One guitar player I know likes to cut a direct track at the same time as cutting with an amp, so as to be able to revisit the (re)amplification or Amp Farming after the track has been completed. If you have the track space, why not?
Always use your ears
Remember that a microphone is going to translate whatever sound it hears, where it hears it, with its own unique sound stamp. It is critically important to place the microphone in a position where the sound is most useful to your application.
Generally speaking, even with a multi-speaker cabinet, I’ll choose one speaker which sounds best to me (by listening up close). I’ll ask the guitar player to turn the master volume down so that I can tolerate the level that close to the speaker cabinet. When I find a position that embodies the best attributes of the sound (for the context of the song), I’ll actually touch my ear with a finger, then leave my finger there as I move my head away to see where the spot is. That’s where I’ll place the microphone.
Speaker response is brighter towards the middle of the dome and progressively warmer farther from the middle. So if you have carefully placed a mic where your ears told you to, and it’s still too bright, before cranking the eq you might want to reposition the microphone farther from the middle.
Proximity of the microphone to the speaker is another element of the sonic palette. The closer the microphone is, the less the acoustics of the room come into play. In a setting where more than one instrument is being played in the same room, closer positioning is well advised not only to increase the signal strength of the desired speaker, but also to give the guitar a tight, punchy response which will help it cut better in the mix. The less air there is between the microphone and the speaker, the more direct/punchy the recorded image will be.
Mics and musical context
Choosing the instrument and amplifier for the context of the music is the first step. Once this choice has been made, I’ll listen to the sound before choosing how to record it. Depending on the context, I sometimes use dynamic mics, but more likely I’ll use a condenser or a ribbon.
Dynamic mics that I’m likely to use include Shure SM54, Shure SM57, Sennheiser 409, and AKG D112, sorted by my impression of their bass response from least to most.
I like so many condenser mics that it would be hard to list the m all. Condensers likely to be found in many home or project studios include Neumann KM 184, Neumann TLM 103, AKG C414, and Oktava MC012. I sort these in order of how focal an image they translate, with the KM184 as the most focal leading to the Oktava MC012 as the least focal. I use the word ‘focal’ to describe the tightness/ sponginess of the microphone’s response.
I probably rely more on ribbon mics than either dynamics or condensers when recording electric guitar. I own a Coles STC4038 and am about to purchase a pair of Royer R-121s. AEA is making a beautiful reissue of the RCA 44BX, and when you can find a vintage RCA 44BX or RCA77DX in good shape, they’re wonderful.
The biggest drawback to using ribbons is that they’re the most fragile of microphones and can be damaged by loudness and mishandling. The Royers stand out from other ribbons in that they’re designed to withstand higher sound pressure levels. That makes them the most reasonable choice for recording loud guitar amps.
Microphone choice for me is based totally on my experiences. Until I hear the way a particular microphone model reacts, no amount of reading specifications or even talking with other engineers about their opinions means enough to me to make a mic choice—I have to understand a mic’s sonic footprint viscerally.
Dynamics convey power
Although it’s difficult to generalize my decision-making process, I think of dynamic mics as being good for conveying power and making it easier to get the guitar to cut through a complicated set of sounds. I choose condensers for detail, a sense of air and for hi-fi extended frequency response. Ribbons translate size and breadth better than any other mic technology. They also translate detail beautifully, without the high frequency emphasis condensers tend to impart. In general, ribbons seem to most faithfully translate the way the amp sounds acoustically.
Preamps present another opportunity to craft the sound. Tubes, Class A discrete transistor and modern IC-based preamps all offer their own imprint. I’ll use all of them based on the sound I’m trying to create. To my ear, tubes tend to impart warmth, air, and sponginess, Class A discrete transistor preamps power and IC preamps immediacy. I’ve come to rely very heavily on my Brent Averill repackaged API 312 preamps for electric guitar. I think their portrayal of electric guitar sounds translates a wonderful balance of power, detail, warmth and sweetness.
Eq and compression to taste
My favorite electric guitar eqs are made by API. The 554 three-band eq and the 550 three band (this is the old API 550A, the current 550B has four bands) are not the most versatile eqs in the world, but as far as I’m concerned their inherent sound just nails electric guitar. My favorite compressor for electric guitar is the UREI 1176.
For electric guitar I’m generally not fond of compressors that don’t have attack and release controls, and surprisingly this rules out a huge number of compressors. I like a not-too-fast attack time, so that the attack can translate without too much artifacting, after which the compressor can dig into the sustain. Beyond the attack and release control that the 1176 offers, I just find it to be a very musical-sounding device.
When bigger is better
Looking for bigger and more complex electric guitar sounds? If you have the time and track space to experiment, use more than one amplifier/speaker combination—at the same time. More than one mic technology on the same speaker can lead in this same direction, for instance combining a ribbon with a condenser. Pay attention to phase when using multiple mic setups on one speaker. Generally your mics should either be placed coincidently (capsules almost touching), or one close and one distant, following the 3:1 rule. It says that the distant mic should be at least three times the distance away from the sound source as the close mic.
Another path to BIG electric guitar sounds comes through multiple images of the same part. Here’s a very fast way to achieve this kind of doubling: If you cut basics to a click, take an outtake and sync it up with the best guitar take. (Because of the click, chances are that it’s not too far off and may be used to shadow the “good” keeper track.) Even better, set up a different mic and have the player match the performance.
Either way, I like this type of doubling better than using a delay, or track shifting. The inconsistencies between one performance and another are far more complex than anything that can be achieved electronically. This complexity makes the doubled sound bigger than anything you conjure up electronically.
Bruce Kaphan is an engineer/producer/musician/composer who was a member of American Music Club, has toured extensively with David Byrne, and has recorded with John Lee Hooker, R.E.M., Jewel, The Black Crowes, Chris Isaak, and Sheryl Crow.